By Bill Carroll
When reading a familiar and beloved text like the Sermon on the Mount, we may despair of finding anything new to say about it. For here, Jesus speaks in a programmatic way about the central features of his message about faith, discipleship, and the Kingdom of God.
One, rather obvious way to read this sermon is to observe that it’s about the giving of a New Law. Just like Moses did on Sinai, Jesus climbs a mountain and gives us commandments. Unlike Moses, however, Jesus does not disappear into a cloud and reemerge with a message he’s received from God. Jesus is God. And so, he opens his mouth and speaks, beginning with the beatitudes, proclaiming God’s righteousness in all its fulness.
At one level, there’s nothing wrong with this interpretation. We could all stand to be reminded of God’s call to holiness from time to time. In human society, the claims of justice are seldom preferred to those of wealth and power. What is more, reading the sermon as an exhortation to the highest form of morality has the authority of many early readers of the Gospel behind it. Augustine, for example, observes that “If anyone will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount…I think he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life.”
It’s a standard, of course, that has often been observed in the breach. Even in ancient times, wave after wave of Christians found they had to flee to the desert to try to follow the teachings of Christ. The desert monks, and many kindred spirits since, have sought to live out the Gospel without the compromises and evasions most of us settle for.
More often than not, however, they discover they’ve brought the world with them. Living the Gospel in its purity is easier said than done. Since Eden at least, there’s never been a golden age free from ambiguity and imperfection. Indeed, in large measure, that’s what the Incarnation is all about. Without removing the world’s imperfections, God subverts it from within. In this way, God’s power and wisdom confront the world as the weakness and foolishness of the cross.
We can learn this wisdom from saints of the past like Anthony, Francis, or Teresa—or from more recent examples like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King. These men and women show us what the Gospel looks like in practice. Saints like these and the movements that form around them draw at least some inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, the great manual on Gospel discipleship. They also make the cross of Christ visible in their time through suffering and martyrdom. Though many of them left behind a body of writings, some of them commenting directly on the words of Jesus, the ultimate commentary is holy living that follows in his steps. Truly, as Jesus says later in the sermon, whoever hears these words of his and does them is like the wise man who built his house upon a rock. Truly, these saints are the light of the world.
There’s a risk here, though—one at least as great as that of half-hearted discipleship. It’s that we reduce the Gospel to a rulebook. A new series of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots" adds to our guilt without changing our lives. Where, we might ask, is the Good News? Where do we find promise and hope in the beatitudes?
The first thing to note is that none of the beatitudes is, in fact, a commandment. Each is a blessing, stated not in the imperative but in the indicative mood. Rather than tell us what God commands us to do—he isn’t shy about doing that elsewhere by the way—Jesus begins by announcing what God is doing and is about to do. Rather than tell us we ought to become poor or meek or pure, Jesus tells us about the blessings that fall to those who already are, and then invites us to get in on the action.
In a recent Gospel, as Jesus begins to preach publicly, we hear him announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. Later, in the beatitudes, we catch a glimpse of what that Kingdom is like. It’s an upside-down Kingdom, where the last come first and the first, last. The peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—everyone who comes dead last in a world ruled by violence, greed, and fear—these are the ones God is blessing. Those who are in first place now have cause for concern and repentance. Thank God that, as painful as the great reversal will be, there is new life for us all in the abundant mercy of God.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Jesus, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. And this is Good News for the Ohio University staff member near the bottom of the ladder, drowning in debt and two payments late on the mortgage, living in fear of another round of layoffs (as a result of impending state budget cuts). Blessed is he, because God has heard his cry and sent Jesus to take up his cause. Blessed is he, because Jesus became a worker and showed us the way of solidarity, justice, and love. Blessed is he because Jesus has drawn near to him in mercy.
Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus, for they shall be comforted. And this is Good News for the widow, struggling to make a new life for herself on the other side of loss. Blessed is she, because God is with her in strength and love. Blessed is she because Jesus has shared her grief, overcome death, and opened the way of everlasting life. Blessed is she because Jesus has drawn near to her in mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus, for they shall be called children of God. And this is Good News for those scarred by the present reality or the awful memory of war. Blessed are they, because Jesus forgives their sins, binds their wounds, and bears their pain. Blessed are they, because Jesus endured the hostility of the world, made peace by his blood, and showed us the way of reconciliation. Blessed are they because Jesus has drawn near to them in mercy.
And so, as we hear these words, let us take them to heart, and look for those things that God is doing or is about to do among us. For it is by discerning and responding to the movements of grace that we open ourselves to God’s blessings in our lives. And let us remember (for we often forget or are told otherwise) that:
Blessed are we when we are humble or hungry or poor.
Blessed are we when we are merciful or gentle or compassionate.
Blessed are we when we are falsely accused or persecuted or practice costly forgiveness.
Blessed are we when we grieve or suffer or struggle.
Or hunger and thirst for justice in a world gone mad.
For then, in those very moments, we find that Jesus has drawn near to US in mercy.
Then, we discover that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.